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4-year PhD Studentship: Characterising social attributes in chickens that promote sustainable egg production

   Faculty of Health Sciences

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  Dr SDE Held, Dr Jo Edgar, Prof M Mendl, Dr E Paul  No more applications being accepted  Self-Funded PhD Students Only

About the Project

Farmed animals are frequently exposed to situations that reduce their welfare and the social environment has the potential to alleviate or magnify this effect. In chickens, conspecifics provide an important source of social learning [1]; crucial just after hatching, when chicks risk mortality (1.5% in the first 2 weeks) and must rapidly learn to access feeders/drinkers by watching other chicks. Conversely, later in life, social learning can facilitate the spread of injurious pecking-an important welfare and economic problem affecting 65–86% of free-range flocks[2,3].

Furthermore, fear can spread rapidly across large groups, through socially-mediated arousal (see our earlier work [4-7]), causing panic and contributing to keelbone fractures (affecting 60-90% of free-range flocks[8,9]) and mortality (10% of free-range birds[10]). But conspecific presence can also alleviate stress. We previously demonstrated such “social buffering” in chicks in the presence of mother hens [11]. The extent to which this persists beyond the mother-offspring bond into adulthood, however, is unknown.

For group-housed animals, ability to cope will depend upon their individual social attributes (i.e., the degree to which they respond in the social situations above), but little is known about how consistent these attributes are over an individual’s lifespan and how the different attributes interact.

Aims and objectives

Determine the extent of individual consistency and association between different social attributes in domestic chickens.

Objective 1: Is social learning capacity consistent over an individual’s lifespan? Hypothesis: Chicks more adept at social learning are more likely to socially learn as adults.

Objective 2: Does social buffering exist in adults and is this consistent over an individual’s lifespan? Hypothesis: Social buffering is demonstrated in adults and is positively correlated with social buffering as chicks.

Objective 3: How are individual social attributes associated? Hypothesis: Individuals showing greater socially-mediated arousal are better at social learning and show greater stress-alleviation through social buffering.


Studies will be carried out at a small commercial poultry farm allowing birds to be followed from day-old chicks to adults (30 weeks). The student will adapt paradigms previously developed within the research group to determine capacity for social learning, social buffering and socially-mediated arousal. They will receive training in experimental design; the tests will need to be carefully controlled to take non-social effects into account. Birds will also be observed in their home environment, where the student will gain behavioural observation skills to detect social interactions and feather pecking.

The following tests will be carried out at twice in the same individuals; as chicks and adults:

Social learning test to determine chicks’ latency and success of learning to access water from a nipple drinker, after observing trained demonstrators. As adults, we will measure ability in a pecking task.

Socially-mediated arousal by measuring behavioural and physiological (body temperature and heart rate) responses of observers during exposure of demonstrators to controlled air puffs.

Social buffering tests will allow comparison of a subject’s response to air puffs in the presence and absence of conspecifics. Opaque and transparent screens between test chambers will enable investigation of the role of conspecific behaviour.


animal welfare, behaviour, chicken, empathy, hen, social buffering, social learning, socially-mediated arousal, social responsiveness, sustainability

How to apply for this project

This project will be based in Bristol Veterinary School in the Faculty of Health Sciences at the University of Bristol.

Please visit the Faculty of Health Sciences website for details of how to apply

Funding Notes

This project is open for University of Bristol PGR scholarship applications (closing date 25th February 2022)
The University of Bristol PGR scholarship pays tuition fees and a maintenance stipend (at the minimum UKRI rate) for the duration of a PhD (typically three years but can be up to four years).


1. Nicol,C. Animal Learning & Behavior 32,72-81 (2004).
2. Gilani,A. et al. Applied Animal Behaviour Science 148,54-63 (2013).
3. Lambton,S. et al. Applied Animal Behaviour Science 123,32-42 (2010).
4 Edgar,J. & Nicol,C. broods. Scientific Reports 8,10509 (2018).
5 Edgar,J. et al. Applied Animal Behaviour Science 138,182-193. (2012).
6 Edgar,J. et al. Animal Behaviour 86,223-229 (2013).
7 Edgar,J. et al. Proceedings of the Royal Society B-Biological Sciences 278,3129-3134 (2011).
8 Wilkins,L. et al. Vet Rec 155,547-549 (2004).
9 Wilkins,L. et al. Veterinary Record 169,414 (2011).
10 Weeks,C. et al. Plos One 11,15 (2016).
11 Edgar,J. et al. Animal Behaviour 105,11-19 (2015).
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